Massive growth, record enrollment and millions of dollars in research funding.
In the past 10 years, University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides has elevated the University of South Carolina’s profile and overseen its transformation into one of the fastest growing flagship universities in the nation.
Pastides announced Wednesday he will step down as the university’s president next year. And while he has accomplished much in the past 10 years, USC observers say he leaves much for his successor to tackle.
Pastides took the helm of the university in 2008 on the start of the Great Recession, and it was his fancy financial footwork that allowed USC to survive budget cuts from the state legislature, said Eddie Floyd, a member of USC’s board of trustees.
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“We went through some really, really tough times when we had budget trouble,” he said.
But under Pastides’ leadership, USC managed to grow the student body by 25 percent, increase the number of tenure and tenure-track faculty by the same percentage, raise record amounts of money, including $258 million last year for research and boost the university’s academic profile through various programs.
The student body is now 51,000, spread across eight campuses. But more students sometimes means more problems, and off-campus student behavior at times has been a point of tension among university officials, Columbia leaders and residents.
Much of the increase in student body has been thanks to tuition discounts offered to out-of-state students. Floyd said that technique was necessary to stave off financial woes as state lawmakers cut funding for higher education.
“If we did not have growing enrollment, I don’t know what we would’ve done,” Floyd said. “We would’ve been in some big-time trouble.”
State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said bringing more out-of-state students helped the revenue stream and assisted with the university’s national rankings. But it also came at the expense of South Carolinians paying higher tuition costs, he said.
Additionally, the same technique hurt diversity on campus and led to lower enrollment of African-Americans, Jackson added. African-Americans make up nearly 30 percent of the South Carolina population yet account for less than 10 percent of the student body.
“I think he did a great job, and I’m a big fan of some of the wonderful things he has done,” Jackson said. “But we also have to admit that the percentage of African-American students has gone down.”
USC completed a successful $1 billion fundraising campaign in 2015, thanks in large part to Pastides’ efforts. It has also received a record-high amount in research funding these past 10 years, including $258 million in sponsored awards from last year alone, according to the university.
Meanwhile, the university’s tuition costs continue to soar, increasing 39 percent since Pastides became president.
Jeff Schilz, interim executive director of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, said tuition cost is a problem that won’t go away anytime soon, and the next USC president will have some decisions to make. Schilz and Pastides have publicly feuded over the price and accessibility of higher education in the state.
“The landscape of higher education is changing rapidly,” Schilz said, adding that it’s time to start thinking of ways to fast-track a student’s ability to earn a degree.
Especially in recent months, Pastides has been making a push for students to graduate in four years or less.
“Every semester saved is a lot of money saved for parents and students,” Schilz said. “USC, as the flagship school of South Carolina, has an opportunity to really be a leader. … That’s where (USC) will need to go in the future.”
Looking ahead, the next president of USC will have to address raising tuition rates and adjust the “unacceptable” ratio of out-of-state to in-state students, said state Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, who is also chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
“I’m glad he’s going to stay on for a while,” Peeler said, “He can offer some unfiltered advice.”